Donald Trump and Joe Biden at the second presidential debate (Image: EPA/Shawn Thew)

Here are three things that happened this week.

  1. A major political news story involving the US president’s lawyer had to run with a disclaimer that it contained spoilers for the new Borat movie.
  2. One of the largest military bases in the world became the latest in a long line of victims of an incredibly specific hack when its Twitter account interacted with sexually explicit images. Would you believe, it was later revealed to have been caused by a horny and careless employee.
  3. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s connection to a Catholic sect called People of Praise led to (false) rumours that its severely patriarchal views had been the basis for The Handmaid’s Tale.

This is the America — febrile, conspiratorial, farcical, sinister — that Donald Trump and Joe Biden were fighting to lead as they met today in Tennessee. Trump by no means created this America, but he inarguably raked these elements to the surface.

After the first debate — an exhausting and depressing affair, filled with hectoring and interjections from Trump and featuring a performance from Biden that looked every bit as tired as the rest of us felt — it was announced that the candidates’ microphones would be muted when they are not directly being asked a question.

Yet the lead-in coverage reinforced the fact that the mainstream media is still manifestly unable to deal with a figure like Trump. After four years of this garbage, they still tut-tut about Biden using words like “hell” and “shut up”.

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Biden went in ahead in the polls, but nowhere near as safely as it might appear. Regardless, Trump’s advisers conceded to Axios that “the first debate [was] a catastrophe”.

In classic Trump form, his debate guest today was Hunter Biden’s former business partner Tony Bobulinski, echoing his invitation of Bill Clinton’s alleged rape victims to his second debate with Hillary Clinton.

And yet, the early running was merely dull. Both rambled, but Trump’s first few answers — still a stream of consciousness, but relatively even-tempered and on topic — were practically soaring oratory by his standards. He even thanked moderator Kristen Welker (who was excellent throughout) a couple of times.

The advice Trump’s team had for him was to let Biden talk, letting the Democrat tie himself in knots with his tendency towards vagueness and gaffes.

And at first it seems to work — Biden mashed words into one another, and paused a second too long in the middle of his sentences. But at least he didn’t seem ready for a rocking chair and a blanket like last time, and he slowly picked up steam.

The tone started to slide around the halfway point, when the debate turned to overseas interference in US elections.

Trump repeatedly brought up the conspiracy theory that Hunter Biden received $3.5 million from the mayor of Moscow: “they paid you a lot of money, Joe, and they probably still are.”

He then launched into a “no collusion/no one’s been treated worse/witch-hunt” greatest hits medley, ending on an accusation that Biden’s relatives are making “a fortune” from despotic regimes. “They say you get some of it Joe, and you do live very well.”

Biden fell into the trap for a few questions, getting caught up in the nastiness. But he’s consistent in his line directed straight to the voters: “it’s not about my family, it’s about your family and how Trump has failed them”.

After his fairly soporific start, Biden ended strong. When Trump calls the previous COVID-19 relief package “an attempt to bail out badly run, high-crime Democrat states”, Biden found a bit of emphasis when he declared, counter to Trump’s partisanship, “I will not see red states or blue states, but the United States”. Hokey, sure, but one of a couple of memorable-enough turns of phrase he manages.

Biden stayed energised when talking about separated immigrant families and the “dreamers” program scrapped by Trump. And as he got more aggressive, Trump inevitably did too — countering, incredibly, by saying Biden spent his vice presidency “doing nothing” on immigration except “building cages for kids”. Within five minutes he’d accused Biden of releasing murderers and rapists caught at the border into American communities.

On race, Biden did a decent job of expressing an understanding of what it is to be the victim of institutional racism. Trump, who last time out made a point of signaling neo-Nazis, repeated his preposterous assertion that no one has done more for African Americans than he has (with the “possible exception” of Abraham Lincoln). Less preposterously, he called out Biden’s record of voting for crime bills that resulted in tens of thousands of black men going to prison for minor drug charges.

Trump also went back to a key plank of his 2016 platform: he’s not a politician, but Biden is, just like the rest of them, all talk and no action.

Biden’s performance was mostly adequate and occasionally very good. Fifty million Americans have already voted and he may just have done enough to not lose a huge swathe of those who remain.

Trump’s hope is that, with his relative restraint, he allowed soft Republicans — who like his tax cuts and court appointments — to believe what they convinced themselves of four years ago: sure, he’s a jerk, but he’s a jerk who lets things get done.